Many in Europe and Africa seem to view it as a neo-colonial enterprise hatched by the evil Bush administration. But the Pentagon and State Department seem genuinely excited by the idea of America's first new combatant command, Africa Command.
At today's inauguration of Africom there was a certain buzz-- not exactly backslapping and shouting happy -- but its first commander, Gen. William "Kip" Ward [pictured talking with Ugandan troops] charged up the crowd with a vibrant Hooah! after he unveiled the command's standard. The event marked a mighty rare occurence, creation of a new combatant command, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates was there along with representatives from several African countries. Africom is headquartered at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany, a significant issue since there has been a clamor overseas that America is really interested in building bases around the continent to protect American oil interests. My favorite example of this sort of thinking comes from a February press briefing on the command when it was first announced. Abderrahim Foukara, a correspondent for Al Jazeera asked: "How have you coordinated with other European nations; is this a 21st Century scramble for Africa?"
It's that kind of political silliness that lead the command to put this rather prim note on its website that: "Any additional presence on the continent [beyond troops in Djibouti and military personnel in embassies] and will take place only in full diplomatic consultation and agreement with potential host nations.
The principal job of the command as it stands up will be to help African governments develop their own military capacity, building crisis response teams, teaching them to cope with pirates, and to help train them in counter-terrorism techniques, Gen. Ward told reporters in a quick press conference after the ceremony.
As someone who lived, worked and reported from eastern Africa for almost six years I can't think of a better set of missions for the US in that often tortured continent. If we can help turn most African militaries into true defense organizations, focused on self-defense and capable of aiding their citizens in time of emergencies the US will have done more long-lasting good than we ever did playing buddies with the continent's often murderous leaders during the Cold War.